Monday, December 16, 2013

_Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong_ by Faith Erin Hicks

I've enjoyed a couple of graphic novels by Hicks, but this one -- with a sort of jocks versus geeks conflict in high school that results in a fun team-up -- kinda knocks it out of the park. I read the whole thing in a delirious 45 minutes. I love that it features a robotics team, and am jealous of how well the main character's home conflicts are portrayed.

I'll be looking for more by Hicks.

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Corporations working hard to train kids to fear copyright

Wired has an article about California's forthcoming copyright curriculum.

The idea appears to be to teach kids that copying anything is bad, and to ignore fair use.

I worry about this because I'm constantly noticing that people's casual knowledge of copyright tends towards fear that something isn't allowed. People are already overworried about this sort of thing.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Vienna focuses on how women use the city and makes the place better for all

Slate, in the article at, referenced some facts about Vienna, which apparently a) studied how people use the city and then b) acted upon that, improving the place. Especially for women, but in fact everyone benefits.
In 1999, city planners asked residents to fill out a survey about how they use public transportation, and found stark gender divides in how people spent their time—and therefore how they used the city. 
The majority of men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day—to go to work in the morning and come home at night. Women, on the other hand, used the city’s network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently and for a myriad reasons.
And so this is what Vienna did:

They started the long process of reorganizing infrastructure to ease intra-neighborhood running around, instead of just focusing on commute-based transportation. That means wider sidewalks and more ramps for pedestrians pushing carts and strollers, closer schools and drugstores, and more courtyards where children can run around while you run errands. 


Also, though, THIS is what I think of when I hear 'Vienna'....

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Best D&D with teens ever = fewest rules ever

I had a recent role-playing-game experience that was really a knockout, and it came from dropping nearly all the rules.

I had a weekend where I was going to be gone on Saturday, while my 13-year-old daughter was hatching a plan to have some friends over to play "D&D" on Sunday. The kids don't really know what D&D is exactly, but they know they want to try it.

She needed a gamemaster who knew how to play, and tried to draft her 16-year-old brother, but it looked like a recipe for sibling sabotage. So she asked me, and I had absolutely nothing prepared.

(Well, I have a basic setting idea I'd been wanting to use, and you'll see how that plays out.)

But during the morning I had an idea. I was thinking about how most startup games get devoted to character generation, and it occurred to me -- what if we established all character abilities during play.

I applied to that a rule cribbed from Donjon, helped by me not having read the Donjon rules in a long time, so that I forgot most of how to use it.

So we ended up with just one mechanic: abilities defined as using some number of 6-sided dice, with rolls of 4+ treated as 'successes', and each success allows you to state a relevant fact of the world, Donjon-style.

Each player got 20 dice and started with one ability chosen. The setup was this: the characters start out in a giant canyon, waking up, with amnesia, knowing only one thing about themselves.

This idea came from my Catastrophe Canyon setting, which includes the idea that drinking canyon water causes various forms of amnesia.

After that, we started play, and most of the encounters they had derived from facts that they established through successes. It really worked rather well.

Each time they tried something, they could decide to assign from 1 to 6 dice to it, from their 20 total.

I'll probably want to post some more details later -- like the cake-monsters they fought because one player's successes 'found' some cake under a bush, and I turned that into a living cake with humanlike feet...  but let me just say that this game session accomplished everything I'd hoped for.

One of the players had even played 'real' D&D before. I warned her in advance that what we were going to do wouldn't much resemble that, and she was game.

Worm is a serialized superhero on the web. Worm is wow.

I'm really enjoying this story of a girl in high school who has super powers and is just now ready to start using them publicly, who has to figure out how to keep her secret identity and carve out a hero identity:

 I'm going to try and mention a couple of things about it that might grab you, and then I'm going to point out a few cool things from a comic geek perspective.

Okay, let's set the hook a couple of ways:

  • Girl in high school must resist using her super powers to destroy her bullies.  I mean, if you went through high school and didn't at some point think, "wow, it's a good thing I don't have laser vision, because I'd just fry half the people here in a weak moment," then dude, you were part of the problem.
  • Girl sets out to begin publicly using her powers, immediately meets both heroes and villains; forms relationships with both, setting her on a path where she's going to be pulled in both directions.

I like that she's had the powers for a while. I like her point of view. I like that she has a plan for becoming a superhero.

The story paints a world where superpowered people are pretty common, where society has come up with some interesting was to integrate them, or not integrate. The author has clearly thought about the ramifications of super powers in interesting ways. Kids discuss metahumans in ethics class. There are blogs about the "capes." There's media from an alternate world that some mad scientist contacted.

The comic-book dichotomy of heroes and villains is soon complicated. Villains get  a chance to talk about how they see things.

The worldbuilding goes further on how superpowers work. Powers seem to be connected in some way, and that interests me, because having a rationale for all powers is kind of the obvious way to make a comic-book world make more sense -- HEROES did the same thing of course -- but it also tends to kill the comic-book feel. Comic-book worlds have dozens of heroes with wildly different origins. So far the feel of Worm is of a world with lots of wild heroes, yet it's clear that powers have some things in common. For example, a common limit is mentioned, of powers not working inside someone's body, so that for example a force-field power can't be used to put a bubble in someone's heart and kill them instantly. That's a tremendously useful limitation.

This girl's got problems. In fact, she's kind of got all the classic Spider-Man problems. Bullying at school, led by an intense alpha kid. Missing a parent. And since her power is the ability to summon and control bugs, well, the parallels are fun.

But it's the writing that does it. You're intensely in her head as she deals with all of her problems. It's about relationships and choices and pain. The bullying is scarily intense. I'm loving every episode so far and I've read 13 episodes so far. So, enjoy!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Steampunk in real life: first biological gear discovered, in an insect

This is particularly weird and insect that locks its legs together with gears, to synchronize a jump.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A plan to end street harassment (of women) forever

I have a plan that will stop street harassment for all time. It goes like this:
  • All women are now allowed to carry swords.
  • All women get 20 free hours of sword training.
  • All women are allowed to cut a fool without suffering legal consequences once per calendar month.
Fine points and clarifications......

My favorite writing tip from Worldcon this past weekend

I was lucky enough to get to go to Worldcon this weekend. I only spent a day. Chiefly, I learned that a day is not enough time.

I found myself comparing it to Armadillocon a lot, because that's my only other recent convention experience. The main thing I'm looking for in a convention is panels about writing, and this one had them in plenty. On the Saturday I attended, nearly every hour had two panels of great interest to me -- which meant I found it hard to take time out to eat or go to the dealer room.

But I was going to give my favorite writing tip. This one came from a short-story panel featuring Michael Swanwick, James Patrick Kelley, Vylar Kaftan, and Cat Rambo. I'll state it like this:
"You'll be tempted to show character using backstory. Don't."
I found that one profound, because I'm always struggling with long backstory/flashback sequences bulking out my stories, and readers find they drag. This statement made me realize that backstory is the FIRST thing I think of for adding characterization.

I took this idea home and immediately cut a long sequence from my current story, without much pain.

The other thing I wanted to mention about this tip was that I walked away from the panel thinking that it was Michael Swanwick who said that. But when I checked my notes later, the tip actually came from James Patrick Kelley. I figure I attributed it to Swanwick just because he's more well known, and that is eye-opening.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Your Great Big 90s Comic Book Collection Ain't Worth Much

I feel oddly vindicated by this article: I never felt my comics collection was going to have future value. I always collected stuff because I wanted to have whole complete storylines available for my reading.

Nowadays my 90s comics -- runs of Spider Man and The New Mutants and Dr. Strange -- suffer from poor storage and the occasional attacks of my children, who can't seem to put them back. When I started collecting again after college, I stuck almost exclusively to trade paperbacks and graphic novels, which have the virtue of fitting neatly on a shelf. Today I only keep the comics that fit on a single tall thin bookshelf, and periodically purge the ones I don't think I'll reread.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Holly Lisle's one-pass editing method

I think this Holly Lisle article deserves some review:

I got to it on a tip from Rebecca Schwarz. I'm trying to iterate over this process right now, but it's taking me a while.

My first reaction to it is to point out that one-pass is a misnomer. It's really two passes: a heavy editing/markup pass, and then a complete retype.

Nothing wrong with that. I see that one-pass is a catchier concept. And the actual method fits how I work very well -- I've done this before: do a hardcopy markup and then, instead of entering the markup in the prior version, type a new version from scratch, incorporating the markup as you go. It frees you to use completely new language, but the markup serves as a roadmap. It's great.

However, my writing process for the past couple of years has involved MANY complete retypes of each story, which I now see needs to change. I used to pride myself on that, now I see it as indulgent. I'll have 10 such drafts sometimes.

So far this is what I've learned from trying this out:

1. I've gotten away from marking up hardcopies at all, but it remains super useful. I'd begun to use it only for proofing, but it's a great way to do high-level revision. You can't beat the ability to flip back and forth and mark on the text.

2. Lisle says she can use this process to edit a book in two weeks. I assume she has no other job. Me, it's taking me more than two weeks to edit a 10k-word short story.

3. The main thing that distinguishes this, I think, from other processes is a focus on resolving ALL of your issues with the story in the one editing pass.  One of the reasons I end up with man passes is that I'll put off some issue to a later draft, preferring to isolate it and handle it. That's good in terms of splitting a project into small tasks, but I've clearly taken it too far.

The Big Father Essay uses permutation to drive new language

The following piece, really more poetic memoir than essay, is both a moving read, and an interesting experiment in how to make prose:

The writer used a method of permutations of sentence types (which he describes in detail). This forced him to think about sentence structure constantly.

The result is the sort of prose-poem that I really like, with a dreamy, stream of consciousness quality mixed with beats that hit you like a midday hailstone.

Yeah, ok, it made me wanna get fancy. Check it out. You won't be disappointed. I believe I found this on Metafilter.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Free play "Shipwrecked" has two more weekends before it closes

I juggled to open for the Penfold Theatre's production of Shipwrecked last night. It was a great all-ages play that did a lot with just three actors and I recommend it.

The show has two more Thursday/Friday/Saturday sequences left so get out there and see it if you can. It's at the Round Rock Amphitheatre, a small open-air stage at 301 W. Bagdad Ave, Round Rock TX 78664.

Some random thoughts about the play:

  • The protagonist had an engaging naivete, and that was important in a play with only three actors.
  • It was fun to see the other actors switch amongst many parts.
  • The play had several elements, notably an entertaining dog character played by a Mr. Jerkins, that were fun for kids, while also having thoughtful elements for adults. Hence, it did a good job of entertaining all ages. It was a little long for small kids at about 90 minutes, but most kids seemed to stay interested throughout.
  • The opening act was just, well, Amazing...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The archive file trick: how to throw away old story notes

When I work on stories, I generate a ton of notes. I find, though, that a lot of these notes are transient things that I don't need a few days later. And I typically want to pare down the notes that I'm referring to while I work on a draft, because if the file of notes is too long, it's hard to use. Plus, as things change, notes become out of date.

Also, a lot of my notes are simply lists of ideas: as soon as I get stuck on 'what's a good way for CactusMan to defeat the Crimson Tide's Blood Tank', I start a list.

(He sticks it to 'em though, of course. That's what CactusMan does.)

But it's hard to delete notes, as I worry that I'll need them later.

In recent projects, what I do to pare things down is throw the notes I'm done with in an archive file. That way they're not deleted and if I really need them, I can go find them.

I almost never do; they just hang out in the archive notes file forever. But that's okay. Having that reduces my inhibitions about throwing things out and cleaning up, and so I can clean out the cruft more easily.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bundle of Holding +2 = Indy RPG splendor

I was going to wait and read all these books before posting about them, but they are on sale and the sale ENDS in three days, so heck with waiting.

Here's the link where you can get this:

I was lucky enough to get pointed at the link to this bundle by someone who thought I'd be interested. But I didn't actually look at it; I was busy and assumed it was a computer gaming bundle. I forwarded the link to my son, who then came after me to split the cost with him. Because he was actually interested in what turned out to be a collection of indie RPGs.

I've long been interested in these types of games, specifically the ones that have a pretty specific setting, simple rules, and are designed to be played with a minimum of prep. But except for Donjon, I haven't actually managed to play any of them. Like My Life With Master, which I still aim to play. So I wasn't initially up for buying more games to sit on a shelf.

But now my SON is interested, which greatly increases the chance of play. They look great and we bought them; they're running a pay-what-you-want sale right now so you can get a BUNCH of games cheap. Also I really like that they are being offered as totally unfettered PDF files. Here is the list of books. (The bonus items come if you pay more than the average price, which was at about $13.50 when I bought.)

  • Kagematsu: Men play women and women play men, in feudal Japan.
  • Shooting the Moon ... a 2- or 3-player game where two suitors pursue the same beloved.
  • Grey Ranks ... you play young Polish soldiers in the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis.
  • Penny for My Thoughts: You've lost your memory; you and the other players work together to figure out how and why.
  • BONUS BOOK: Monsterhearts: about 'the messy lives of teenage monsters'. Pretty much had me at teenage monsters.
  • BONUS BOOK: Hollowpoint: 'Bad people killing bad people for bad reasons'. Agents who are good at being bad.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I've been really enjoying this volume of Dashiell Hammett _Lost Stories_ ... only now I can't find it

My dad mentioned this book to me. While on the phone with him, I put it on hold at the local Austin library. Within a few days I picked up a copy.

Usually I am not very interested in the introduction and about-the-author/about-the-story stuff in a volume like this, but this book tells you something about Hammett's life to frame each story in a really interesting way.

However, now I can't figure out where I put the volume!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Great story by a Slug Tribe member

I'm very glad to report that fellow Slug Tribe member Peter Enyeart has his first publication, and it's in a pretty prestigious place, Nature. I've read at least two previous stories by Peter and they are always interesting. Transmission Received.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Urban fantasy short "Road Test" by Lane Robins, on Strange Horizons

I was kind of blown away by this short story, "Road Test." It has many surprises as its two characters contend with each other.  A new take on the idea of the magic of cities.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Big day today... my first pro short story sale: "Daughter of Mettle" on Daily Science Fiction

An exceedingly short story by me went out to Daily Science Fiction e-mail subscribers today. It will show up on the Daily Science Fiction web site in one week (4/18/13).

The story is called "Daughter of Mettle". I hope you will find it... super. :)

This story is my first sale of a story to a venue that pays professional rates, so yea me!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Chess boxing?

Why is it that no one had told me about chess boxing already?

It's exactly what it sounds like: a combination of chess and boxing. You play a round of chess, then a round of boxing... you can win by checkmate or knockout.

I don't even know if I believe in it. All I have is this Wired article to go on. But I like the geneology of it: someone made it up for a comic book, someone else made it real...

"Leaving the Witness" describes adventures of a Jehovah's Witness in China, and the action is all inside

I was kind of floored by this article in The Believer: 

...which describes the author's journey to China as a missionary, and how she found her way out of the walls of Witnesshood through exposure to such a different culture. 

I had a Jehovah's Witness friend in high school, who was a fantastic student but made it clear she had no intention of going to college; I didn't know, though, that discouraging college was POLICY for the denomination. That rather makes me angry. The author paints a picture of a church that carefully discourages exposure to outside thought ... but the idea of proselytizing to China breaks that paradigm.

Particularly striking were paragraphs like this one

"I now understood, [that in Vancouver] I had been nothing more than an English tutor, pulling up in a Volvo and offering free English practice to baffled but appreciative immigrants. In China, there was no mincing of words, now that I could understand the words. These 1.3 billion people I was trying to save looked at life in completely different ways. The concepts I pressed them to grasp and adopt were bizarre abstractions, a not-unpleasant idiosyncrasy one put up with in order to have a Western friend."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

_The Cabinet of Wonders_ and the rest of the Kronos Chronicles, by Marie Rutkoski

I bumped into these books because of the the nice cover designs, when volunteering at our elementary's library. Turns out they are set in the Bohemia of an alternate Europe, with Czech speakers and all that. A little steampunk, a little magic, but mainly a great, spunky main character, Petra Kronos, with terrible, terrible problems.

I found the first book enchanting, the second gripping, the third heartbreaking, and I liked how the author lined everything up so that a young teen could, with all the allies she gathers, have a shot at saving the world.

I also enjoyed how the books' villain was motivated; he was simply single-minded in his pursuit of power, and that was more than enough.

But probably the reason I actually sat down and read it was the scholarly and helpful tin spider, Astrophil, who is the main character's pet. He offers sage advice and reads at night while she sleeps.

Great stuff. It's marketed as youth or young adult, but I thought it played well as an adult book series.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Random Tavern Generator

I'm expecting to have some D&D characters hit a city and want to find taverns. Therefore I need some taverns, right? So I turned to the internet, and found a random tavern generator. I just really like it when I think of something I need, and the internet has already provided it, for free.

In this case, I rather liked what the folks who made this decided were the important things to give you about a tavern.... Here's a sample.

from random tavern generator ... 

Tavern Name: Lonesome Bed
Bartender: Female human, 6th-level sorcerer
Interesting Clientele: Cloaked figure in corner, a bard performing for drinks.
Rumors Overheard: An absentminded wizard has let her rod of wonder fall into the wrong hands. A mirror of opposition has created an evil duplicate of a hero.
Accommodations: Good (a small private room with one bed, some amenities and a covered chamber pot) for 5 sp/day
Today's Menu: 
Breakfast: Smoked sausage, Goose eggs, Quail eggs, Stewed prunes, Oatmeal (cost 1gp).
Lunch: Veal sweetbreads, Sharp cheese, Black beans, Peach (cost 8sp).
Supper: Lamb chop, Collard greens, Cabbage, Nut bread, Custard (cost 1gp).
Snack: Deep dwarven blue cheese, Peach, Millet (cost 4sp).

Article about Dan Harmon's Post-Community Stuff Makes Me Want to Watch Community

I've never actually watched _Community_, but the stuff about them firing Dan Harmon as showrunner was interesting, and this article about Dan Harmon's 'Harmontown' show is super interesting.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Cover for my D&D notebook

I felt like making an old school map for the cover of my notebook.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pillowdrome, an ad-hoc game

Scott Simpson shares a game he calls Pillowdrome where you chase someone around an obstacle while balancing a pillow on your head:

This reminds me of how much fun I've had with my daughter playing our invented game 'Duck Dash', which is tag where you have to hit the other person with a stuffed duck. It's basically tag for adults who don't want to run so very much. 

Lego Hogwarts model is amazing

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A software tool for designing games: Ludi

This was a neat find from an article on BoardGameGeek about a game called 'Yavalath' that was designed by a computer program.

First the hook: the game Yavalath sounds interesting. It's played on a hex map (a hex of hexes); two players take take turns placing pieces in two colors; you win if you get four in a row of your color ... but you LOSE if you place three in a row.

The Ludi program uses a sort of evolutionary programming process ... it scrambles a bunch of game rules to make rule sets, then simulates playing the games and uses some kind of heuristic to decide which games would be interesting to human players.

Further, the humans working on the project then had people play the top-ranked games (Ludi generated 1048 games and ranked 19 as interesting to humans). The people's choice, Yavalath, was actually #4 on Ludi's list. 

Other details show that clearly the algorithm for predicting human interest isn't perfect. One of the highly-rated games had rules too complex for people to like. But so what? Think of this thing as a game design tool, a way to test and iterate options. Because isn't that the problem with game design -- one can imagine many rule choices, but it's expensive to try them all. 

The story I read about the famous German game Setters of Catan is that the author, Klaus Teuber, spent months playing the game with his family every night, testing out various rules. That's fantastic, and supports the widespread popularity of the game, but few people can make that sort of testing happen. I know I've played many a game that didn't seem like it had been playtested nearly enough.